For avid travelers, owning a passport with ears, its pages dotted with a colorful mix of entry and exit stamps, can be a strangely satisfying achievement. As a tangible record of fulfilling and exciting overseas travels, it’s nice to flip through it from time to time, reflecting on memorable moments and happy experiences. Many people even tend to keep expired passports as a reminder of those thousands of kilometers traveled and all the ups and downs that came with them. What is far less pleasant is the bureaucratic and often nerve-wracking process of applying for visas and travel permits to get from one country to another in the first place.
In the Persian Gulf, only GCC nationals currently enjoy free movement between the bloc’s six countries. Most foreign residents of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman often require visas to travel around the region, even for a weekend trip. Many international visitors wishing to explore the rich heritage of the Arabian Peninsula often have to apply for different visas, or at least visa waivers, if they want to visit each of the Gulf countries. This is a less than ideal state of affairs for those who want to explore and learn about this part of the Middle East with as little fuss as possible.
However, it appears that things are about to change, with recent statements suggesting that a pan-GCC visa is in the works. Last Monday, Abdullah bin Touk, the UAE’s Minister of Economy, told the state-run Wam news agency that a single, unified tourist visa system was being developed to simplify travel in the GCC and boost tourism. According to the minister, we hope that the new system will be introduced sometime between 2024 and 2025.
The idea of free travel around the Persian Gulf has been around for some time, and in May this year, Bahraini Tourism Minister Fatima Al Sairafi told a panel discussion at the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai that such a development could happen “very soon”.
A GCC visa is an idea with real benefits and the potential benefits are many: more tourism; closer cooperation among the Gulf States; and a boost to countries’ efforts to diversify their oil and gas-focused economies. It is not difficult to imagine the positive reception such a streamlined process would receive; just as travelers currently talk about ‘visiting Europe’ – that is, traveling to several neighboring countries on a Schengen visa – so people could talk about ‘visiting the Persian Gulf’. A journey that begins in the 21st century metropolis of Dubai, explores the natural beauty of Oman’s Salalah during the kharif, and ends in the ancient Saudi oasis city of AlUla would be quite the trip.
A journey that starts in the 21st century metropolis of Dubai, explores the natural beauty of Salalah and ends in the ancient oasis city of AlUla would be quite the journey
As with any significant policy change, however, there are challenges to overcome. Currently, GCC countries have different visa requirements for different passport holders – some meet the requirements for a visa on arrival, while others must apply and pay in advance. Some can come without a visa at all. The bloc will need to develop a common application and processing system, something that will require detailed ministerial commitment, technological harmonization and border coordination. And with more visitors come additional challenges, such as developing tourism in a sustainable way, offering opportunities for people on different budgets and ensuring that the infrastructure and facilities are in place to cope with an increased influx of holidaymakers and regional travellers.
Nevertheless, the potential benefits to the GCC should outweigh these concerns. Organizers of Expo 2020 Dubai recorded more than 24 million visits during the six-month world expo – no small feat given the way the Covid epidemic affected international travel at the time. Last year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar also showed that it is possible to successfully manage a huge wave of visitors from around the world. The success of the tournament will be closely watched by other GCC countries, some of which have experienced their own economic boost thanks to the event. Hotels in Dubai and Abu Dhabi recorded increased business and Saudi Arabia took advantage of the sporting extravaganza by offering 60-day visas to anyone who held Qatari-issued Hayya cards during the event.
The first World Cup in the Middle East is not the only precedent for a flexible approach to visas. Although Schengen visa holders can explore 27 European countries, this is not the only example where obtaining one permit gives travelers access to other destinations. A valid US tourist visa, for example, allows certain passport holders to enter more than a dozen other countries – including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Similar provisions apply to holders of Canadian or British visas or residence cards. There are other common visa systems, such as the unified Central American visa, which allows travelers access to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
There is still a lot of work to be done and some questions remain – for example, will foreign residents of the GCC countries be able to benefit from the new system? Many would welcome a new system that makes it easier to travel around the region. However, we may be about to see another major shift in the way the Gulf engages with the world. It may turn out that the pan-GCC visa is an idea whose time has come.
Updated: November 01, 2023, 7:00 a.m